Queenstown's heights of hilarity

450,000 revellers spend big at Winter Festival

SUE FEA
Last updated 15:19 25/06/2014
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Former radio DJ Grant Stewart gets up close and personal with a dog-barking entrant.

Judge Kevin Phillips
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Judge Kevin Phillips, who was at the time a lawyer, joins in the fun.
Drag Queen
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The 2002 Drag Queen is congratulated.
2014 Queenstown Winter Festival
JOHN HAWKINS/Fairfax NZ Zoom
The Queenstown Winter Festival parade.
2014 Queenstown Winter Festival Drag Race
ROBYN EDIE/Fairfax NZ Zoom
Drag queens take part in the hotly contested drag race at the 2014 Queenstown Winter Festival.

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It all started when a couple of Kiwi blokes were enjoying a beer in Eichardt's Pub back in 1975.

This month Queenstown's iconic Winter Festival, now renowned as the southern hemisphere's biggest winter party, celebrates its 40th anniversary with international class and style.

Founded on hairy drag queens, dried cow pats, chicken plucking, spaghetti eating and dog barking, the annual 10-day Queenstown Winter Festival now attracts 45,000 people every year and injects a whopping $57 million into the local economy.

 

These days the festival, which costs between $750,000 and $1 million to produce each year and is run by 16 paid staff and 75 volunteers, signals the start of the ski season. However, back in the 70s it was an excuse for a party to liven up the town coming off lean off-season business heading into winter. Bored moteliers had their doors closed and jetboating and newly emerging rafting companies were off the water.

Ex-Aussie-turned-Queenstown musician Peter Doyle and Eichardt's pub manager Laurie Wilde were supping a beer in Eichardt's and decided the 5000 residents should throw a bit of a party for the locals and skiers in late July, early August.

"We soon had a committee of keen tourist and hotel operators, locals like Des Gavin and Sugar Robinson, both from Coronet Peak," says Doyle.

It was a real team effort and the ideas couldn't have been whackier, but the locals got busy and had a ball devising downtown events.

Those with national skiing connections ensured major racing events were staged on Coronet Peak during that week and the then handful of Queenstown hotels and pubs held themed aprs ski dinners and parties with live bands to follow.

There was no snowmaking in those days and the festival usually kicked off after Coronet Peak opened, usually in late July.

Original events like the DB Export Dog Derby and Waiters Race (now the QRC Hospitality Race) have been around since day one and still share top billing with events like The Polar Plunge, the Dash for Cash and the infamous Drag Race, started in the 1980s. Some events have come and gone, but The Birdman (originally The Pier Long Jump), with its whacky aerial costume designs, is now beamed out internationally as part of media festival coverage.

 

Tourism entrepreneur, the late Bill Tapley dreamt up the Downtown Day and its legendary Cow Pat Throwing Competition, an iconic Kiwi event. Although for the first two years in the late 1970s it was held at his Arthur's Point Cattledrome, the event was moved into town, amid some controversy, recalls then Walter Peak Tours manager and former district mayor Clive Geddes.

Some locals were opposed to having cow dung thrown around downtown, but they lost. The event thrived and was only dropped from the programme when the tourism operation closed and the cow pat supply dried up in the late 1990s. It was resurrected as a memorial to Tapley at the 2000 festival.

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"Bill would rock up to Earnslaw Park with a load of perfectly frozen cow pats from his paddocks, stacked on the back of his ute," recalls Geddes. "The overseas tourists loved it. He even suggested using his wife's freezer as a back-up one year when the frost wasn't hard enough," he laughs. This was not well received.

Longtime Queenstown journalist Jenny McLeod was named the inaugural world champion cow pat thrower with her world record-breaking throw that first year in 1975, but says she didn't go on to defend her title.

It's one of her favourite early festival memories, along with the Peak to Park Relay dreamed up by longtime Coronet Peak skifield manager "Sugar" Robinson and organised by the Wakatipu Rugby Club.

"I can remember (former TV journalist, now winegrowing pioneer) Alan Brady on roller skates, pushing me in a wheelbarrow in the Wheelbarrow Race down the Mall," she says.

The roller skates were later banned for safety reasons and replaced by children's bikes, but that event didn't lose its shine.

Legendary Queenstown Police Sergeant Warwick Maloney was always a starter for the bike race.

 

"It was before it all became enormously popular and got any media much. We did it all for ourselves," says Geddes.

That was all long before the days of red tape and resource consents for road closures put paid to some of the downtown hilarity. The local Lions Club also ran the Peak to Park Relay from the top of Coronet Peak to St Omer Park in downtown Queenstown. It was a far cry from the lycra and high-tech mountain bikes of today's Mountain Bikes on Snow event.

Every sports club and community group in town lined up about 20 teams of 22 at the top of the mountain skiing down, then racing "wheelbarrows" - competitors with their hands in ski boots and runners carrying their legs behind - on snow. Runners took the next leg to the then Packers Arms Hotel (now Gantley's Restaurant). There was tyre rolling, egg and spoon, skipping, biking, rugby passing all the way downtown to St Omer Park where old ladies were waiting in a row to knit peggy-squares and babies were lined up to crawl across the finish line to their mothers. Canoeists then had to paddle a section of Queenstown Bay.

Chicken plucking was also in the relay programme. Peter Doyle's favourite memory as compere is the day Bruce "Egg" Dillon, the chicken farmer from Frankton, turned up with live chickens instead of dead ones to pluck.

"I'd asked him to bring me 15 chickens to be plucked, but he turned up with live chickens. It was highly embarrassing. There were chicken feathers, old ladies with knitting and babies everywhere," he laughs.

The Downtown Day always had Shotover Jet founder Trevor Gamble revving up a good spray on the beach in his latest boat for the Jetboat Challenge. One of the town's tourism leaders, Stuart Maclean, recalls parking his brand new car, doors open, on the Marine Parade beach one year, as he prepared to compere for the sprint.

"Trevor came flying in in his jetboat and sprayed water right through my car from one side to the other."

The Spaghetti Eating Contest, always staged by The Cow Restaurant in Queenstown Mall, was a local favourite. About 20 large bowls of spaghetti would be lined up each year for hungry, predominantly male, enthusiasts happy to make a public pig of themselves. Former longtime Cow owner Sandy Kilgour is best known for the year she spiced one entrant's spaghetti with chilli powder and quietly gestured to those around her to "watch that guy's face".

 

The Waiters' Race, organised by Queenstown restaurateur Bruce Leitch, a restaurant worker at the time, brought the town's waiters out in force, sprinting with trays carrying glasses of champagne.

The Pro-Am NZ Mogul Championship race was a "massive day" on the mountain in the early days, recalls Peter.

The blonde, muscle-bound American head of Coronet Peak ski school Larry Lasch lived up to his name: "He had all the latest ski racing tight, bright lycra. He used to pull all the birds."

However, it's the Dog Derby - an infamous day out for high country farmers and their normally obedient working dogs - that's so endeared the hearts of festival lovers nationally and internationally. Each numbered, bib-clad pair must run, slip or slide their way to the bottom of Coronet Peak through the chaos of whistles and barking, crossing the finish line together.

Former Mountaineer Hotel manager Tony Hill helped organise the event for many years with farmers Tony Strain and John Cook.

"You could just about guarantee a front page photo. It was so special and unique and really represented the rural sector of the community," says Hill.

Nothing's changed today with tourists spellbound by this iconic Kiwi event.

The infamous "Dog Barking", which follows the mountain mayhem, was initially held under the Coronet Peak base building where competitors always enjoyed some sponsors' product.

In 1978 it was moved to the Mountaineer pub and then to Arthur's Point pub, before being moved back into town recently to the Speight's Ale House, the Village Green and then Earnslaw Park. The first recorded winner was Malaghan's Rd farmer Bill Dagg in 1975.

The first two derbies were organised by Coronet Peak's colourful Des Gavin. He then wrote to the Arrowtown Young Farmers Club requesting that they take over. The entry fee was a half dozen beer. Sheep were even involved for a few of the early years.

It was initially intended as an event for locals, but drew farmers from all over Otago and Southland. Throughout the 80s and 90s it attracted 70 to 80 competitors most years.

Tony Strain says the event has been held on Coronet Peak all but two years. Poor snow conditions had dogs and owners clambering their way down the new Remarkables Ski Area across the valley in 1988 and bad weather meant it was cancelled in 1998.

Mount Cook Company sponsored the event in the early days and prizes consisted of Bacardi Rum and mutton from the local butchery, followed by Lion Breweries' Steinlager. The brew then changed to DB as festival sponsorship changed in the late 1980s.

The event has raised a lot of money for charity and has not only produced male champions, but some skilled female dog handlers. Karen Scott and Jackie Sarginson and their "singing" canine sensations have also cleaned up throughout the years.

The "Bark Up", as it was originally known, was initially held at the after-match function, which used to be in the Coronet Peak base-building basement. It was first introduced after the derby down at the Arthur's Point Pub in the late 1970s to "get competitors off the mountain before they had too much to drink", says Tony.

Marketing in those early years was not the technological dream it is today, so the original committee of Peter Doyle and local identities like Des Gavin, Sugar Robinson and Bruce Leitch, banded together with the community. "Each afternoon we'd use a Gestetner to roll out that evening's festival results, programme and the next day's events ready for personal delivery to every Queenstown hotel and motel," says Peter.

In the 70s, there was no radio station, no fax, computer, social media or cellphone - just the local party line from the Queenstown toll exchange.

By the mid-1980s the festival had become too big and popular for a committee of volunteers to manage. It was handed over to local members of the National Travel Association, who later formed the Queenstown Promotion Board (now Destination Queenstown), which took over the festival reins in 1987.

By 1993, the QPB had signed a groundbreaking sponsorship agreement with American Express, which is still on board today.

By the time the Queenstown Promotion Board's Fraser Skinner introduced the popular Mardi Gras in the early 1980s, the festival was already attracting celebrities like former Prime Minister Sir Rob Muldoon.

The Downtown Day's Round the Bay Swim was either performed off the Earnslaw, or a barge in Queenstown Bay. Hardy competitors donned Speedos and dived straight into the icy water.

Fraser recalls Tux Dog Biscuits being handed around patrons at The Mountaineer pub during the Dog Barking Contest one year.

"People actually ate them. I guess they were just getting into the spirit of it. They may have had some liquid encouragement."

The fabulous sight of the Swedish-based Volvo Ski Team freestyle skiers also wowed the crowds on Coronet Peak for a time.

In the 1980s and 90s Festival Snow Queen contestants would float past wearing shiny sashes from the respective business they represented, often hotels. Former festival marketing manager Mandy Kennedy still recalls the "delightful purple frock" she wore as a Snow Queen entrant representing Holiday Inn Queenstown in 1992.

 

The Snow Queens were marched into the Memorial Hall, each on the arm of a handsome Top Bloke Contest entrant, another iconic event which John and Ann Mann ran for 19 years during Winter Festival from 1992.

Lavish balls staged initially by former Lakeland Hotel (now Rydges) manager Chris Black were a huge hit, attracting television hosts and presenters like Grant Walker from TV's Wheel of Fortune. Oysters, lobsters and champagne were always flowing.

Walker has fond memories heading to the top of Coronet Peak on a snow groomer with TV3's Belinda Todd and Murray Strong, of the Mount Cook Group, in pitch black darkness during a festival ball in the early 1990s. After a few bubblies, he remembers skiing down the groomed slopes in full tux with Murray and Belinda, dressed in her ball-gown.

The Drag Race was dreamed up by Queenstown DJ Steve Sinclair in 1991. Fraser Skinner recalls the sound effects of a car engine blasting over the speakers on Earnslaw Park before a stretch limo pulled up that first year. People were expecting revving engines and full throttle exhausts.

"But the back door opened and the first fishnet-clad, hairy, male leg appeared out of the back door and people just erupted," he says.

David Kennedy, who was in that first limo, would not only become synonymous with Queenstown tourism, but a veteran star of the event in which hairy drag queens fought high heel and painted nail, over an obstacle course, their wigs and false boobs flying.

"I lost count of the Drag Races I did - 10 or 12 or something. I retired once I reached the pinnacle of my career. I was last on the back straight and only won once because all the frontrunners fell over," recalls Kennedy.

He claims Mount Cook Line's Trevor Hall only won that inaugural 1991 event, because he had flats on.

Businessmen like Kim Wilkinson, Andy Brinsley, Peter Lohman and Kevin Phillips - now an Invercargill district court judge - were all regular attractions.

Most of those ageing queens have long since gone into retirement. However, festival organisers promise a Drag Race like no other this year as past champions dust off their frocks, handbags and bling ready for battle once again in those unforgettably short skirts.

It's this core community spirit and hilarity that has helped the festival flourish and grow during the past 40 years. Mention Queenstown Winter Festival to any of its fans years on and there's still that warmth and endearment as the fun memories come to mind. A lot may have changed from those early days, but there's no denying Queenstown locals still know how to throw a good party. The party just got bigger.

- The Southland Times

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